My plan for the next few weeks is to cover each of the 30 major league teams, and take into consideration what changes need to be made if they want to be a playoff contender in 2012. For some teams, their blog will be quite short. For others, it’s going to take some major overhauls. The goal is to cover all 30 teams between now and the first day of the Winter Meetings (December 5th), which is when the largest number of trades and acquisitions begin to take place. We’ll work our way from the bottom to the top – since we don’t know who is going to finish where in the playoffs.
The Houston Astros (56-106) of 2011 were the only team to win less than 40% of their games (.346 win pct.). They lost 100 games for the first time ever in the team’s 50th season of existence. And, in the last 14 months, have traded away their ace pitcher (Roy Oswalt), all-star first-baseman (Lance Berkman), speedy outfielder and leadoff hitter (Michael Bourne) and their best young outfielder who has perennial all-star potential (Hunter Pence). Astros fans could possibly understand trading a 35-year-old first-baseman who seemed to be on the downhill side of his career. They might could even make amends with the idea of trading away a 33-year-old ace, when you’re getting the other team’s top pitching prospect, who had finished 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting the year before. But, trading away your 28-year-old budding superstar outfielder is a waive of the white flag (even if he was going to be eligible for a hefty raise next season).
Houston . . . we have a problem. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist) The real problem for Astros fans is that they’re in the #10 television market in the U.S., but only have the 20th highest payroll in the league (just over $70 million). The question fans ought to be wondering is – why are teams like the Cincinnati Reds, and Milwaukee Brewers (teams in your own division!) spending more money than us? Especially when they rank 34th and 35th, respectively, in US television markets. And worse yet – the St. Louis Cardinals’ payroll is more than 50% higher, and they’re in the 21st television market. Astros management can’t blame it on the fans – back in the earlier half of the 2000’s, when Houston was winning, they were right there with the top 10 teams in the league in attendance (as high as 7th in 2004, with an average attendance over 38,000). Other than rare cases like Tampa Bay, if you put a winning team on the field, people will come to the games. If you build it, they will come. (I apologize a second time)
So, what does Houston need to do? Well, they only have one top-10 prospect at any position – Jordan Lyles, a RHP who was called up in late May, pitched in 20 games, and didn’t fair very well (5.36 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, and .285 opponents’ avg.). The good news is Lyles is just 20 years old. The bad news is, he isn’t going to be replacing Roy Oswalt – most project him to be a solid #3 starter, which means if he wins 13-15 games next year, they’d be ecstatic. And, after ranking last in the NL in ERA, and allowing the most home runs in the NL, the pitching staff could use some major work. Since Lyles is their best prospect (and there isn’t much else to hope for coming up from their farm system), the answer looks to have to come from free agency or trade – but, they’ve pretty much traded away everyone that others would be interested in, so free agents it is. Unfortunately, that’s a problem for 2012 because the best pitching free agents are names like C.J. Wilson, Javier Vazquez, Edwin Jackson, or Hiroki Kuroda. Unless some of the guys with options for 2012 don’t get picked up (Sabatthia, Chris Carpenter, Oswalt), there really won’t be any #1 starters available. But, Houston could pick up a couple guys that are solid #2’s, and put Lyles in that #3 spot, and be in reasonable shape. The price tag would be anywhere from $15-20 million for 2 top-of-the-rotation starters.
As for the bullpen, they had the worst bullpen ERA in the NL. Their closer position seems semi-stable with Brandon Lyon or Mark Melancon as reasonable options. If the Astros spend the bulk of their money on starting pitching, then they’ll need to get high value for low cost relievers. At the top of that list would be Joel Peralta – who made just $925K this last season, and is a very nice option in the 7th & 8th innings, as he’s had an ERA under 3, and a WHIP under 1 each of the last two seasons. Adding Peralta and one more decent reliever would really help shore up a weak bullpen.
Offensively, the Astros ranked 24th in OPS, 26th in runs scored, and in spite of the short porch in left field, ranked next to last in home runs in all of baseball. However, their potential is better here than in pitching. Jose Altuve is a promising second baseman who could possibly fair well in one of the top two spots in the lineup. And, Kody Hinze is a first baseman with some pop who could bat somewhere in the 3-6 range of the lineup – but, he might need one more year in the minors. A free agent move that Houston could seriously consider is Jose Reyes. They don’t have a consistent shortstop, and Reyes could take over that position, as well as provide them with a great leadoff hitter. And, again, they certainly have the space in their payroll for a guy that’s going to want something close to $18-20 million. The next important move would be giving Carlos Lee some support. There’s not a lot out there, but you could get an Aramis Ramirez for about $8-9 million, or a Jason Kubel for about half that. A potential lineup of Reyes, Bourgeois, Lee, Kubel, Paredes, Hinze (or Brett Wallace, depending on who does better in the spring), Altuve, and Castro would be a fairly significant upgrade over what Houston finished with in 2011. There’s possibly enough veteran leadership in there to help the young guys along.
The bottom line is that in order for Houston to have a serious shot at contending a year after losing 106 games, they’re going to have to increase their payroll by $40-50 million. If they keep their primary arbitration-eligible players they’ll have a payroll around $70 million again, and turning that into $110-120 million would actually be right around the appropriate level for a team in Houston. Much of this depends on potential new ownership, and what they will do. And, do they want to pay big free agents for a couple years, or hope they can develop the talent in their farm system? Lots of questions, and no great answers at this point.